pastorjohnb

Thoughts and musings on faith and our mighty God!


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God’s Design

Reading: 1st Thessalonians 5:11

Verse 11: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing”.

On our faith journeys, we can try and go it alone. We are embarrassed by or ashamed of our sins and failures. We go through the motions of faith and pretend we are doing okay when our faith feels dry or when a trial has beset us. We try and push through seasons of doubt because society tells us we just need to try harder. Our pride and ego refuses to ask for help. But God did not design faith to be this way. God designed faith to be a communal pursuit. Yet if we are to truly be a part of the community of faith, if we are going to have real and deep relationships, then we must be honest and transparent, authentic and vulnerable, committed and compassionate.

Our passage today is just one verse. Again, it reads: “Therefore encourage one another and build each other up, just as in fact you are doing”. Because the world is challenging, because the dark and evil are ever present, Paul knows that the believers need to be surrounded by Christian community. Paul begins by telling us to encourage one another. To be able to encourage one another, we need to really know how we each are doing. This is where honesty… comes into play. We must be willing to share our burdens with one another. We must also be willing to carry another’s burdens at times. We must be willing to tell others when our faith feels thin, allowing them to pour into us and to fill us up. Similarly, we must be willing to give of ourselves, to pour into another as we are able. Paul also urges us to build one another up. We do this by sharing our faith. This can be actual teaching or it can be living the faith so others can see what it looks like. Pastors and teachers and small group leaders and mentors are all a part of this process. We also build one another up by being present. We celebrate successes and achievements, we rejoice when a baby is born, we bring food and love and presence in times of hardship and suffering and loss.

The church in Thessalonica was living as a community. It was how God designed the church. As we ponder these thoughts today, may we each consider how we could encourage and build up the body of Christ this week.

Prayer: Living God, lead me by the power of the Holy Spirit to be an encourager and a builder. Help me to see the ways that I can help the community of faith to be like a family, like the heavenly fellowship that we all await. Bind us together in your love. Amen.


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Take Courage!

Reading: Matthew 14: 22-27

Verse 22: “Immediately Jesus made the disciples get in the boat and go on ahead of him”.

Jesus’ actions in today’s passage have an immediate teaching moment for the disciples as well as application for all who follow as disciples. Jesus sends the disciples on ahead of him so that he can pray in solitude. They head out into the waters and a storm arises. As the night progresses, the disciples are increasingly battered and afraid. Into their fear and tiredness, Jesus walks across the water. He comes through the storm to be with them, to calm their fears, to reassure them. As he nears, Jesus echoes the words that God spoke to Moses during a storm in his leadership, saying, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid”. The winds and waves calm as Jesus enters the boat, validating who he is: the Son of God.

In the years following Jesus’ death and resurrection, the first disciples and the early church would read this passage and see themselves as the ones in the boat. Jesus commissioned all disciples to go into the world to share the good news. For the early church the storm was the Jews and Romans. Today, for us, it is secular culture that defines the post-Christian world that we live in. For the early followers, the harassment and ridicule were the early wind and waves. As the storm increased they endured persecution and prison and even death. It felt like a storm raging against their boat. The same God who came to Moses, the same Jesus who came to the disciples in the storm – the same Holy Spirit continued to be with the early disciples and continues to come to you and me when the storms of life rise up.

Jesus continues to call us out into the world. In response, as followers we seek to live out the gospel, to share our faith when opportunities arise, and to be examples of the humble servant whenever we can. At times we too will find ourselves in the storm, battered and afraid. But we will not be left alone. Jesus continues to come to us, to walk right through the storms, to bring us peace and strength and assurance. Through the whisper of the Holy Spirit, Jesus repeats over and over, “Take courage! It is I. Do not be afraid”. May we ever remember, Jesus is with us. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving God, your abiding presence is always with me. Ever guide me, ever walk with me. Help me to remember, especially in the storms, that I am never really alone. No matter how bad the storm, Jesus is by my side. Help me to cling to his power and strength. Amen.


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Faithful God

Reading: Genesis 37: 12-28

Verse 28: “His brothers pulled Joseph up out of the cistern and sold him for twenty shekels to the Ishmaelites, who took him to Egypt”.

A cruel and violent death is avoided – at least for now. The brothers avoid staining their hands with their own brother’s blood. Of the choice between two evils, they have chosen the lesser one. The brothers are twenty shekels richer and rid of their troublesome little brother. Joseph travels south, bound in chains, headed into a life of slavery. It is about as far away from spoiled favorite child as one could get.

Joseph has been separated from his family, but he is not all alone. Although he might have felt all alone as the caravan headed for Egypt, God was with him. God cannot control the decisions humans make or the emotions that drive those poor decisions, but he can work within situations to accomplish his plans. For example, instead of the brothers killing Joseph, along comes a caravan of merchants. Eventually it will be a severe famine that drives all twelve brothers back together again. God will continue to guide and bless Joseph, continuing to work good out of bad circumstances and situations.

This too is our experience when we are faithful and trusting in our God. When we allow God to guide our lives we will never walk alone. God will ever be at work to accomplish his good plans for us. Like it did with Joseph, sometimes life happens and we find ourselves on a road we did not choose to walk. But more often than not, we ourselves choose that other road. We choose the road that deviates from God’s plans. Yet even then God continues to walk with us, to work in our lives. God provides opportunities to return to walking with him. I may take road B instead of God’s road A. But down the line God gives me a chance to take road C or D or E – all of which lead back to God and his good plans for me. Yes, we are ever works in progress. God is a tireless and faithful worker. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Loving and faithful God, perhaps I deviate less that I used to. And for that I am thankful. (You probably are too!) Yet at times I still go astray, still choose less than the plans you have for me. Keep drawing me back, keep setting my feet upon your path. Thank you God for your love and faithfulness. Amen.


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Struggle with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 28: “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”.

For most of his adult life Jacob has been a schemer and a taker. As a young man his mother taught him how to steal Isaac’s blessing through the use of deception and dishonesty. During his time in exile he learned some hard lessons from his father-in-law Laban and then learned to out-scheme and take much more than he gave. When this caused his relationship with Laban to grow very tense, Jacob did what schemers do – he fled the scene of the crime. Now Jacob is not all bad. There is some good in him. He knows who God is too. On his initial flight from Esau and the land of Canaan, God showed him a vision at Bethel, where God promised to watch over Jacob and to bring him back to possess the land promised to Abraham and Isaac.

As Jacob is alone on the far side of the stream all that is his is on the other side. The stream is a symbolic line as well as a geographical line. Jacob means “grabber” or “schemer”. He has certainly lived into his name. Yet at a point all wheeler-dealer, schemer types want to step off the carousel. The wondering about who will catch up with you, the fear of finally being out- hustled, the unease at living a shady life – they weigh upon the heart and soul and mind. Alone, Jacob is ready for some soul-searching. Just as God had done twenty years ago when Jacob was in need of divine intervention, this night God comes and engages Jacob. The wrestling is real but also symbolic – man versus God, unethical versus ethical, taker versus giver.

Jacob is where we are at when we have been living for self and the things of this world. A part of us knows we are in a place we should not be. That part of us knows we should stop sinning and return to our walk with God. But there is still a struggle. That lifestyle, the sin, it is enticing and powerful. For Jacob, the battle goes on all night. Even after having his hip wrenched, Jacob will not let go of God this time without a blessing, a reassurance of his future. He has come to the point of surrender. Jacob is told, “Your name will no longer be Jacob, but Israel, because you have struggled with God and with men and have overcome”. No longer “schemer” and “grabber”, he is now “he struggles with God”. Leaving his old ways behind Jacob will now focus on the things of God and not of man. The new walk will not be easy. The limp will be a constant reminder of the “cost” of following. It is the “narrow way” that Jesus spoke of.

It is a new beginning for Israel, just as it was the day we said yes to Jesus. That next morning Israel walked forward, ready to overcome whatever lay ahead, assured of God’s abiding presence. This too is our story. May we too walk forward in faith, assured of God’s loving presence in our lives.

Prayer: Loving God, each time that I have wrestled with you, in the end you always prevail. It is because of your great love. In that love you allow me to stumble and sometimes even to fall. But your love is always greater than my sin and is better than all the world has to offer. So you draw me back in. Thank you for your love. Amen.


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Wrestling with God

Reading: Genesis 32: 22-31

Verse 24: “So Jacob was left all alone, and a man wrestled with him till daybreak”.

As today’s passage begins Jacob is almost back home. He fled twenty years ago after stealing the birthright from his twin brother Esau. In the twenty years away Jacob lived in his ancestral homeland. Now he returns to Canaan with two wives and eleven sons plus many servants and large herds of livestock. Jacob is a successful man. Yet he fears the reunion with Esau. Earlier in chapter 32 he learns that Esau is coming to meet him with 400 men. Ever the schemer, Jacob devises a plan. He will give Esau a large gift of three herds, each with the message, “your servant Jacob is coming”. Jacob is seeking to “pacify” his brother Esau before actually seeing him face to face.

On the eve of the meeting Jacob sends all he has on across the stream and he remains alone on the far side. Part of Jacob is still trying to wheel and deal his way through life. But just part of him. A part also knows God. Earlier in chapter 32 Jacob also turns to God in prayer. He thanks God for blessings so far and he asks God to save him from Esau. Jacob invites God into his situation. Sometimes that is the best step we can take too. Whether our situation is something we created or if it is part of life, we too are best served by inviting God into our situation. Often the invitation is accompanied by a self-realization that our hand played a role in getting us to the point we are at. This was the case for Jacob. Like it usually is with us, this was a crossroads, a turning point, for Jacob. God accepts the invitation.

God shows up and wrestles with Jacob all night long. The length and physicality of the battle are symbolic of the change working itself out in Jacob. They wrestle all night long. At daybreak the man representing God asks Jacob to let him go. But Jacob will not simply let go. He asks first for a blessing. Jacob has come to the point of surrender to God. His life and faith will be different going forward. Each time that we wrestle with God, may it be the same for each of us.

Prayer: God of power and might, you are amazing – omnipotent and omnipresent. And yet I, at times, dare to walk against your will, against your ways. Grab hold of me too and wrestle with my heart and soul. Lead me to a quick surrender and a swift return to following you closely. May it always be so. Amen.


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…For You Are with Me

Reading: Psalm 23

Verse 4: “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”.

Almost all people with a little church background would recognize verse four. Even those without church experience would recognize this verse as a statement of faith. Psalm 23 is one of the most recognizable and beloved Psalms. Verse four would not be most folk’s choice for ‘favorite verse of Psalm 23’. As a whole, the Psalm offers or reminds us of God’s provision and guidance, of his presence and blessings, and of the goodness we experience when we walk with the Lord. And there in the middle we find verse four.

This verse is there because it is part of life. The valley of shadow is one we all walk through. It is certainly one that the Israelites and David himself knew well. The Israelites time in slavery and the trials of wandering the desert for 40 years were valleys. The invasions and occupations by many different world powers and the exile to Babylon were valleys. David had his too – hunted down by Saul, watching God allow his son to die… We also have our valleys. We’ve felt exile and we’ve been overwhelmed. We’ve felt the sting of death and we’ve been left all alone. This is why verse four rings so true. Not that we have not experienced blessings and provision, guidance and protection. We have. Over and over. But those moments when Jesus drew near and walked the valley floor right there beside us – those are the moments. We can join David in saying, “I will fear no evil, for you are with me”. Yes, goodness and love will follow us all the days of our lives. Yes, we will dwell with God forever. But the Lord is also with me when I need him most. Thanks be to God.

Prayer: Lord God, you have walked with me for many years. Often our footprints are side by side. Sometimes, though, there has been a gap between our paths. But you always pulled me back, close once again. Always. And sometimes, sometimes the footprints seem to be almost one. In the deepest valleys you have been so close. Thank you Lord. Amen.


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God Alone Knows

Reading: Ezekiel 37: 1-3

Verse 3: “Son of man, can these bones live”? … “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”.

Today’s reading centers on a vision that God gave to Ezekiel the prophet about 2,600 years ago. Reading these words in our current context gives us ears to hear these words in a new way. The devotional book that I physically read each morning is based upon the weekly lectionary readings and was available for order in late September 2019. Yet as I read the author’s words this morning, it feels as if they were written for this very day. Together, these are just one more evidence that God’s word is active and alive.

Ezekiel is led out into a valley of bones that are very dry. The bones have been strewn across the valley floor for quite a while. Ezekiel describes the quantity as a “great many bones”. A great devastation had occurred. On December 31, 2019, an unknown “pneumonia” was first reported to the World Health Organization in China. Not even three months in and it feels like a long time, doesn’t it? In this season of isolation and safe distancing, some are beginning to feel a bit dry.

Ezekiel walks among the bones for some time. “Back and forth” is the way my Bible describes it. After Ezekiel had surely absorbed the vast loss that had occurred, God asks him this question: “Son of man, can these bones live”? My initial response would have been doubt or maybe to consider the sanity of the question. But Ezekiel is aware that he is in the midst of this valley for a God purpose. He replies in faith, saying, “O Sovereign Lord, you alone know”. It is an honest and sincere answer.

In this season that we find ourselves in presently, we too, as people of faith, must approach all the uncertainties, fears, worries… with this same attitude. God alone knows where all this is heading. Even though I do not have the slightest clue, I do know that God has all the answers. This is his world, God has a plan. All things eternal are under his control. In faith may we each step forward, loving one another as we best can, trusting God to bring forth something good.

Prayer: Lord God, in these days, help me to trust fully in you. May I discern what I can do to be help and love to others. Lead me to shine your light into all the places I can. Amen.


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Drawing In

Reading: John 4: 5-26

Verse 9: “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink”?

The conversation in today’s passage is refreshing. Two people who do not previously know each other have an open and honest conversation. Wouldn’t it be nice if people who know each other could have at least this open and honest of a conversation? Let’s see how that may be possible.

The conversation we read in John 4 is honest and allows space for the other to speak and be heard. The woman is coming to the well alone in the sixth hour, which would be noon for us. All the other women came as a group in the early morning, in the cool of the day. As they came, drew water, and returned to the village they would have talked and caught up with one another. The woman at the well is alone and is isolated in her own community. After Jesus asks her for a drink, she replies, “You are a Jew and I am a Samaritan woman. How can you ask me for a drink”? Jesus is attempting to cross a few barriers here in order to enter into a conversation. She points out both the Jew-Samaritan and the male-female barriers. He continues the conversation, crossing the barrier of isolation. Jesus chooses to engage someone that most others ignore or avoid. In spite of the initial barriers that she tries to put up, Jesus continues to try and connect with her. Jesus offers her the “living water” and she reminds him that Jacob drank from this well and gave it to the Samaritans. The Samaritan connection to Jacob is their claim to equality with the Jews. She is testing Jesus – will he bite and allow the conversation to be derailed? No, he continues to offer her the water that leads to eternal life. You see, the gift of eternal life is much more important than any earthly defined barrier or difference. How can we model this belief in our efforts to share Jesus with others?

In verses sixteen through eighteen Jesus identifies the thing that keeps her on the fringes of society, outside of community. He does name it but there is no judgment, no taking of moral high ground. She falls back into the Jew-Samaritan barrier in verse twenty, but again Jesus persists, opening her eyes to see how God is working to break down worship and religious barriers, revealing a time when all believers will worship together in spirit and truth. Jesus is again leaning into the eternal. The woman at the well is beginning to sense what Jesus offers, connecting to the day when the Messiah will come. The conversation ends for now with Jesus claiming, “I am he”. Drawn in, the woman will soon draw others in.

This is the pattern of discipleship – sharing faith in Jesus with one person at a time. May we practice this model today.

Prayer: Father God, lead me past any barriers my earthly eyes may see at first. Open my heart and mind to the guiding of your Holy Spirit as I seek to share Jesus with others today. Amen.


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By Faith Alone

Reading: Romans 4: 1-5 and 13-17

Verse 13: “It was not through the law that Abraham and his offspring received the promise… but through the righteousness that comes by faith”.

As Paul and the rest of the earliest church were sorting out just how Jewish one must first be to become a follower of Jesus Christ, he penned these words that we read today. Before becoming an apostle, Paul was known as Saul. In that phase of his life he was a self-proclaimed Jew among Jews. He was a very devout Pharisee who knew and followed the letter of the law. As the early church grew and began to add Gentile believers, a huge debate arose over just how much of the Jewish faith must be followed to become a Christian.

In our reading for today Paul points to Abraham, the father of the Jewish people. Paul chooses him for two reasons. First, he is one of the pillars of Judaism. His faith is one of the models. God declares Abram righteous because of his faith. As we’ve been reading, God called and in obedient faith, Abram went where God led. He stepped out and followed God. Second, at the time there was no law. It had not been given yet. Paul is saying that one can be saved by faith apart from the law. Paul, known as the apostle to the Gentiles, is not in favor of applying Jewish laws to the Christian faith. Paul himself became a believer when he met the risen Lord and then entered into a personal saving relationship with Jesus Christ. For Paul it had nothing to do with the law. In the next chapters Paul will go on to argue this point further. Martin Luther will pick up these texts many hundreds of years later as he works out his “justification by faith alone” doctrine that will rock the church.

Even though the New Testament clearly spells out that one is saved by faith alone we can often feel like we must do good works or follow some set of prescribed steps to be saved. God does not have a giant balance scale that one day weighs out our good versus bad. We know from the scriptures that as soon as we confess and give our sins to God, they are wiped away – they are no more. Nothing is being stacked up on the “bad” side of some mythical scale. Yes, our faith will lead us to do good things. That is how we live out the love of God within us. It is the model Jesus set for us. As we follow Christ, living out our faith, may his ‘why’ become our ‘why’. Jesus loved others because the love of God within him overflowed into the lives of others. May we do the same. May the sharing of God’s love be our grateful response to our God who saves.

Prayer: Dear Lord, thank you for your unconditional love and grace. It is certainly not deserved but you pour it out upon me anyway. I definitely cannot earn yet it is still there in unending abundance. It is an amazing love, an amazing grace. Thank you. Amen.


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God Alone

Reading: 1st Corinthians 3: 1-9

Verse 3: “You are still worldly… there is jealousy and quarreling among you”.

Paul is known as the apostle to the Gentiles and as the person who spread the good news of Jesus Christ to the known world. He traveler east and north and west of Palestine, preaching about Jesus and planting churches as he went. Paul helped plant the church in Corinth and he continued to tend to it through letters. In these letters Paul continues to teach them about the faith and he also addresses issues and conflicts that arise. The portion of the letter that we read today addresses a division that has risen up in the church.

Paul begins by addressing the believers as “worldly” and as “infants in Christ”. These terms would have stung a bit and maybe started to bring them to their senses. In essence Paul is calling them to grow up and to act like the mature Christians that they can be. In verse three he identifies the issue: “You are still worldly… there is jealousy and quarreling among you”. Since they are struggling with worldly sins Paul implies that they have lost sight of the main thing: Jesus Christ. Paul himself then demonstrates his own spiritual maturity in the way he advises them. Instead of trying to elevate himself over Apollos he acknowledges that they have both played a role in developing the church. He identifies himself simply as a “worker”. Paul uses the farming analogy saying that he planted and Apollos watered. Then, in verses six and seven, Paul reiterates an important truth: only God can make someone’s faith grow. It is the action of God alone that changes lives. Yes, Paul and Apollos have a function in the process, but the real authority and power rests in God alone.

At times in our churches we can devolve into being small or into being focused on our own agenda. These things only lead to discord and possibly to division. At times a wise and mature Christian will lead the way and peace will be restored. At times the Holy Spirit will nudge and whisper and pull at our hearts, working us towards reconciliation and the restoring of relationships. Just as only God can make faith grow, only God can bring true healing. So in all things may we look to God, being attuned to the Holy Spirit, seeking to walk his path of love. May it be so for all of us.

Prayer: Father God, heal our churches and heal this nation. Heal our hearts and heal our relationship with you and with one another. Amen.